TCS Daily

As Thailand Goes...

By Alan Dawson - July 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Last week's attack on a major province capital in the deep South of Thailand has taken the 18-month regional war by a shadowy gang of Islamist separatists to new levels on both sides of the conflict. In their coordinated attack on Yala town, the insurgents showed new expertise they appear to be learning from forces with strong links to international terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia. The government responded with new anti-terrorism measures that go far beyond even the anti-communist laws of the recent Cold War era.

The escalations from both sides only accentuate the obvious, that the southern insurgency will continue in Thailand. But an even greater danger than a murderous rebellion in the furthest provinces from the seat of government in Bangkok is that the fighting in the South will turn into a full-fledged terrorist campaign with full participation by al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries.


The distant roots of the southern insurgency lie in history. The rebels exploit lingering resentment that Bangkok annexed the five southernmost provinces from weak Malay rulers in 1906. Most of the people in the region are Muslim and ethnically Malay, rather than Thai.


In 1976, a rebellion fueled by support from Libya, and later Iran, killed thousands in the five Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Trang. It was spearheaded by the Pattani United Liberation Organisation or Pulo, a violent group demanding separation of the five provinces. Pulo still exists, although its role today is unclear, as is the insurgency's leadership.


Ten years later, the rebellion died in a series of talks and Bangkok-awarded amnesties. It flickered back to life in the mid-1990s, with occasional terrorist attacks on schools and police posts, but then flared with a murderous offensive on the Night of the Fires, January 4 of last year.

Insurgents burned 21 schools to the ground and shockingly invaded a military base and took hundreds of guns and heavier weapons.


The southern violence has killed almost 1,000 people in 18 months. The insurgents have done most of the killing, with paramilitary-type attacks on government posts and stations. Theyve also terrorised teachers, government workers, Buddhists, and those who have spoken against violence.


After last Thursday night's Yala incidents, in his weekly radio broadcast to the nation, Thaksin claimed the coordinated attacks were by "juvenile delinquents carried away by youthful high spirits," raising the question of why he needed the most draconian security law in Thai history to face youngsters on a Halloweenesque caper. He also claimed they were paid 5,000 baht apiece, about $125.


The deputy prime minister and interior minister, Chitchai Wannasathit, made the attacks a big deal: "This is the time of national crisis. I would appeal for all Thai people to be united and join hands to fight against the people who have bad intentions toward the country."


Both were right. Yala was a piddling attack by military standards: Two policemen killed by homemade bombs, and the lights to the city put out for a few hours until officials got electricity pumped in from the neighbouring provinces.


But it was a headline-grabbing escalation by an enemy that has pretty much controlled the pace and timing of conflict, with only one exception in nearly 19 months. Even that one turned out badly in April of last year, when government forces got wind of impending attacks by more than 100 pumped-up fanatics. They killed most of the attackers at police stations and a military base, but then slaughtered 32 survivors who tried to take refuge in an historic mosque -- shooting up the prayer hall in the process.


Six months later, the army was called in to quell an impending riot by demonstrators at a police station in Tak Bai town. They stopped the protests but mishandled the arrests so badly that 78 bound demonstrators suffocated in the back of army trucks where they were packed for a long ride to an interrogation centre and lockup.


These two errors by security forces -- squeezed in during 19 months of 800 killings and murders carried out by terrorists using guns, homemade bombs, knives and decapitation swords -- have put the government on the defensive. The undoubted brutality of both the army and police in these and several other cases has brought criticism on the government which -- as in the west -- has morphed into sympathy and justification from some hand-wringing quarters for the tiny gang of violent insurgents who are deliberately murdering and terrorising the population of three provinces.


But control of the battlefield may now turn. The weekend cabinet meeting in Bangkok, coupled with a trip to Yala by a frustrated and angry Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, decreed emergency rule in the stricken areas of the south -- three provinces and part of another. The new rules include detention of suspected insurgents without charge, widespread wiretapping and local press censorship.


Civil libertarians and the uncensored Bangkok print media were universally against the new law. "Dictator takes absolute power," read a newspaper headline. But the respected Abac poll showed 72% of Bangkok people supported the drastic move against the southerners. The same poll said an overnight survey showed 86% of people in the affected provinces approved.


The government badly needs at least a showpiece achievement, as confidence is evaporating that Bangkok can handle the southern crisis before international terrorism steps in, takes the conflict nationwide and shuts down the Thai economy, which exists on trade and tourism.


In the past six months, southerners have been voting with their feet. Even government statistics, often manipulated, show more than 34,500 people of 1.3 million residents fled the three violence-wracked provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. Most of those leaving were Buddhist -- there is no history of religious animosity in Thailand, including the Muslim-dominated regions -- out of the 360,000 Buddhist followers in the provinces.


Teachers have been terrorised by a successful terrorist campaign to burn schools and kill colleagues. These are the ultimate "soft target" in the Thai south, and terrorist agents among the insurgent gangs have even tracked teachers to their homes and dormitories, broken in during the night and killed them in their beds.


The top UN official on terrorism, Javier Ruperez of Venezuela, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both have come to Thailand recently, and pointedly refused to comment on the insurgency. "This is a domestic issue for Thailand from our point of view," said Ms Rice.


Fair enough, but the question is for how long? More than 700 young Thai men took military training in the Afghanistan camps of Osama bin Laden before 2002, and Wahhabism has made inroads into the otherwise tolerant, Sunni practice of Islam throughout Thailand, ironically part of a government-approved campaign to try to stifle an Iranian attempt to arouse the small Shiite community. Thai mullahs have been arrested at home and abroad for abetting terrorism, and top Jemaah Islamiyah operative Arifin bin Ali was active in Thailand before his arrest by Singapore authorities.


The troubled provinces of the Thai South, where terrorist and faceless "insurgents" have killed around 800 people, are one provincial border away from the country's top tourist destination, Phuket. Authorities already have stopped terrorist attacks in Bangkok, most notably during the Apec summit and visit by US President George W. Bush in 2003, and the JI leader Hambali was arrested in Thailand two years ago.


Southern insurgents have close relations with the fundamentalist-led rebellion in nearby Aceh province of Indonesia, and the two sides have exchanged arms and military training. The Malaysian government provides little help to track down terrorists who cross the border, and some Malaysian terrorists have been in direct contact with leading Thai separatists. Thai Islam rejects terrorism, but pockets of pro-terrorism Islamists have spread bin Laden-type teaching in southern Muslim schools.


The emergency decree with its sweeping, near-dictatorial powers for police and the government, is a gamble by the popular Thaksin administration. If the insurgency continues, and even escalates the fight again, it would be a dangerous sign that the international terrorists are quickly spreading into Thailand.


Alan Dawson is an editor with the Bangkok Post.


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